interview: Tim Keen of Ought

interview: Tim Keen of Ought
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interview & words: Matt Monroe
photos: Jenna Ledger

Since seeing them live for the first time, I knew that I’d be a part of the cult of Ought. While there were maybe only 30 people at the venue I saw them in, there was such a unique energy to them that I hadn't seen in other, similar bands. Was it the intimacy in which I saw them that brought upon this energy? Was it the fact that they were maybe the third or fourth concert I had ever seen live? Or were they just that good? Whatever the case, Ought was a band that I’d be behind for life after that night in St. Louis three years ago.

That decision has well paid off as the band is about to release their third album, Room Inside the World, later this month, which sees the band stepping into a new territory. Now on Merge Records, the band’s initial identity as post-punk nihilists has drifted away, replacing the dissonance of their previous two records with a softer touch. However, don’t let this new approach fool you, as the wit of their previous two albums is still very much alive.

But mixed with this wit is new musical ideas, as the band borrows less from the tried and true post-punk well in favor of soul, gospel, jazz, and synth pop. While the franticness of More Than Any Other Day and Sun Coming Down initially drew me to Ought, the more assured approach seen on Room Inside the World moves the band into bold and necessary evolution, and one I was extremely happy to talk about with the band’s percussionist and occasional violinist, Tim Keen. Read our conversation below.

The Grey Estates: How do you think you've evolved as a live band, going from after the release of Sun Coming Down to now before the release of Room Inside the World

Tim Keen: It's a lot quicker for us to get really tight now, in terms of being able to play off each other and get around any problems that have come up. I think that were also... maybe a little more versatile on stage where we're more able to run with things that have happened, or take challenges onto us. We've played so many different venues in so many different situations that I think we're getting a lot better at making the best of any situation and making a show as good as it can be. It's been cool, if you play with the same people just all the time, you learn to read their behavior super well. You can kind of guess exactly what's gonna happen on stage based on the way everyone's looking at you. 

How has it been playing these new songs live? Has that helped out bring more matureness or a tighter form as a band, being able to get these new songs out there? 

Yeah, it's been cool. We actually haven't played all of them live yet, we've only done like four or five of them. But, yeah it's been really nice. I'm happy to have songs with even more dynamic range, and a little bit more different musical attributes to them. It's fun because we are a pretty dynamic band, and there's currently a lot of kind of loud and then quiet bits, but it's nice because there's a lot more different levels in the new set. And it's nice to get to play a little bit with that subtlety. It just changes the way that you respond to people on stage, we all need to be able to hear each other quite well and it's a little bit more complex, which I like. I'm into it, [as] I think it's cool. I'm really excited to bust out the rest of the songs too. 

The new sounds you are throwing out there are really interesting, as your last two albums were done sort of quickly and released back to back, where as this time you had more time to plan it out, figure out what you're gonna do, and explore some new sounds. One of the things you did with this album was that you created a digital mood board. Whose idea was it to do that and what addition to the board do you think played the greatest effect before you got into the making of this album? 

I can't remember whose idea it was, [as] we've always sent stuff around. I think all of us we're eager to have more intentions set out, like have more clear ideas of what it was gonna be. As far as which thing was the most important, it's really hard to say actually. There was kind of this general hue, like this general color of the mood board that I think was really important. There was a lot of neon-looking colors, and bold. [There] was kind of a weird sunset glow to it. We talked about, weirdly, Wilco a lot, and bands that used more subtlety and complex instrumentation. This was a point in my life, personally, where I listened to maybe 80 to 90 percent Jim O'Rourke, and that made a very big difference to me to kind of crossing over. And we were all listening to a lot of Alice Coltrane, [which] I think made a really big difference as well. There's a song named "Alice" [on the album], [which] I think is pretty literal. Those ones made a really big difference. 

It seems like you were trying a lot more new things and challenging yourselves. I think Tim Darcy mentioned in a recent interview back in November that he wanted to sing more on this album to challenge himself a little bit. Did you have any personal challenges or desires going into this album that you wanted to do to flex your creative muscles a little bit?

We have always imagined our sound and inputs that are broader than people hear them. I was very intent on making sure that the sound that we made on this record capture the ideas that we had. I spent a long time writing string arrangements, like a lot of the stuff that's on the record was very, thoroughly composed and demoed out and then recorded and recorded again, so I literally wrote some of it. I learned violin when I was younger, so I wrote a lot of the violin arrangements.

We rented a vibraphone, as I was certain that the record had to have a vibraphone on it, just from all of the Jim O'Rourke that I was listening to. So, we rented a vibraphone and put it in the back of my Volvo and drove it to the studio and set it up. I hadn't played percussion in a long time but it was really cool to write those parts. And then Matt [May] and I also spent a long time dialing in a bunch of different... fairly exotic synthesizers and synthesizer plug-ins we were trying to use. And then also not everything we did ended up on the record, in terms of the overdubs or the interesting things, but there was a definite intent to throw all the ideas we had at the wall and then pull a bunch of them off, so that we'd only end up with the really, really cool ones. 

Leading into this album, it seems that your stature has grown, as you got your roots in the Montreal scene where you were this independent band, and now you're in these higher-level publications, and signed to a label like Merge, and playing shows across the world. Have you had any struggle in finding a balance between realizing you're becoming this sort of big band but also wanting to stay to your roots and be DIY, or have you already found yourselves in a nice balance while also having a natural progression? 

It's definitely important to me that I keep my DIY roots in mind, but I don't think we're as big a band as fans of ours might think. We're certainly not in a place where I feel kind of musically or emotionally or, to be super real, financially set up. We're not a big band in a way that I think makes that kind of massive material difference to our lives, like we don't own our own tour bus or anything like that. So, I think that definitely, 100% on the scale of Montreal stuff, we're a band that doesn't have as many roots in that scene as we used to, and our interaction with the industry of music and the things that happen in the music world are completely different from someone in a local scene, but I still feel like I want to make the best records that I can make and play the best shows we could, but we can't, basically. 

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Before I go, I have some quick rapid fire questions I wanna throw at you about touring, because you are getting ready to go on tour starting in March. First question, what's your favorite tour snack or favorite place to eat on tour?

My favorite tour snack is definitely a chip. A plain chip. Maybe a Lay's or Miss Vickie's. Or a KIND Bar. Of all the people in the band I'm the one who's most likely to have some sort of weird health related granola bar at all times. 

What's the place you're most excited to visit on this upcoming tour?

Um let me look at the tour. I wish I could be more rapid fire but my tour M.O. is that I don't think about where we are until I literally get out of the van. It's made touring so much easier for me because I just pretend we're in a magic, rotating black box, and then I get out and I'm like "Oh! We're at a show." [But,] I love Chicago actually, that's gonna be a really cool show. One of my favorite places to play in the U.S. is Madison, WI. we had an amazing show last time we were in Madison, WI. I don't know, I'm wholly charmed by the entire state of Wisconsin, so I'm very excited to go back there. 

What's the book you're most excited to read on tour?

I have a couple of books that my girlfriend's parents bought me for Christmas, actually, so I will read on tour The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead, as it won the Pulitzer and it's an adventure novel obviously about the Underground Railroad, so I'm very excited to read that. 

What's your favorite album or song you discovered while you were on tour?

On the last tour, I was really, really obsessively listening to Art Ensemble of Chicago and I guess everything that came out of the sixties Chicago jazz scene. I think Black Woman by Sonny Sharrock, although while he was technically not in the Art Ensemble and he was in a slightly different part of the world, that record is unbelievable to me. 

What's the most brutal car ride you've been through on tour?

Oh my god. Dude, you have no idea. We've found some shit. The one that really stands out to me, was [when] we flew from Montreal to Seattle, and we played a festival there. And then that night we went to bed and flew to Paris, and from Paris we drove about nine or ten hours to a festival where we played that day. So it wasn't even like one car ride, it was three different forms of transit and so many time zones. There was another one actually that was really bad, Denver to St. Louis. It is unbearable. We've Denver to St. Louis and then we played that day, like 15 hours. So yeah, it's a nightmare. But we'll do it again. I don't know, I obviously am not into it, but I can entertain myself in a car for as long as I need to. 

 How down is your packing method for the van? 

It's pretty amazing. It gets better every time, and it gets better over the course of a tour. Ben [Stidworthy] is... Ben is the packing master. He's the one who physically does the Tetris to get [everything] in the van. 

Finally, what's the thing you're gonna miss most while you're on tour?

Ah man, I mean it's cheesy to say my partner, but it's true. We hang out a lot, it's hard to only be around the same group of people for a really, really long time.